A $1 superfecta on the 2008 Derby, won by Big Brown (20), paid $29,368. (Creative Commons)

We’re not going to talk about horses today. We’re going to talk about why we’re talking about horses.

And that’s to win money.

Not a little. A lot – like a thousand bucks or more.

Big, fat multiples of more.

Once upon a time, we were asked to be like Mike. I’d rather be like El Toro, a guy who’s won $68,000 on Kentucky Derby superfectas over the past six years.

And he bet less than $6,000 to do it.

Most folks can’t afford to bet a grand on the Derby. But there are lessons to be learned from those who can – and ways to adapt some of their strategies.

It’s a mindset more than anything.

Shooting for the big score is the only way to play. Not because it’s more manly or more exhilarating, but because it is ultimately more effective.

“I know few if any professional horseplayers who claim that they beat the game with a slow, steady accumulation of profits,” handicapping guru Andrew Beyer once wrote. “They win with occasional windfalls.”

Grinding out small profits with straight win bets or, worse yet, betting “across the board” is fine for people who can’t tolerate much risk. Nothing wrong with that. But just know that the basic arithmetic of parimutuel gambling is hostile to that approach.

It might feel good to cash that steady trickle of small tickets, but over time, the silent but deadly leeches of breakage, taxes and takeout – which are too dull and complex to examine here – will bleed you dry.

AmTote machines aren’t passbook savings accounts. The race track is no place to play it safe.

“I am personally convinced of the inevitability of loss when attempting to secure a safe income of small return.”

Beyer didn’t write that. Nor did Jimmy the Greek. Those are the words of Gerald Loeb, a founding partner of E.F. Hutton & Co.

Beyer, arguably the most influential handicapper of all time, says Loeb’s approach to playing the stock market applies with equal force to playing the ponies. Both are arenas conquered by men who aren’t afraid to gamble.

Men like El Toro.

He’s a friend of mine. I’m using his nickname because it’s a lot more Runyonesque than his real name. And because money is like sex. Those who get it don’t brag about it.

Besides, it’s a hell of nickname, bestowed by admiring vaqueros and certainly well-earned. Dude rescued a lady’s bulldog from a pack of feral Mexican mutts by charging into the melee on horseback, whip flying.

Beat that.

Toro’s ride. Dude’s won $68,000 playing Derby superfectas since 2007. (Creative Commons)

This is not a man who is afraid to go down swinging.

Toro’s TVG account records show that in 2011 he wagered $2,386 and won $49,157.

His 2012 records weren’t handy. I wasn’t about to insist that he produce them. A guy might get 40 lashes for that.

Toro, 50, only bets when the stakes are high and the betting pools are deep; that is, during the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and on days when major tracks offer Pick Fours with six- and seven-figure guarantees.

“There are only a few days a year when the pools are big enough to justify the investment,” he says.

Toro bets $300 to $800 a race. On occasion, he’ll go north of $1,000. He plays nothing but the so-called exotics: superfectas, trifectas, Pick Fours and Pick Threes.

Toro never bets to win. Don’t even ask about going across the board, which involves betting to place and show.

“I haven’t made a win bet since I was ditching school and riding my bike to Keeneland,” he says.

Toro can’t recall all the superfectas he’s hit on big races, but here are a few.

Kentucky Derby

  • 2007, won by Street Sense — $14,523
  • 2008, Big Brown — $29,369
  • 2011, Animal Kingdom — $24,063

Preakness Stakes

  • 2010, Lookin At Lucky — $8,563

Belmont Stakes

  • 2008, Da’ Tara — $24,318

Breeders’ Cup Mile

  • 2012, Wise Dan — $192

Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile

  • 2011, Caleb’s Posse — $5,085

Breeders’ Cup Classic

  • 2008, Raven’s Pass — $10,236
  • 2005, Saint Liam — $6,318
  • 2004, Ghostzapper — $2,466

That’s $125,133. Grand total indeed.

Toro’s strategy is pretty simple.

No. 1, he must be confident that he “understands the race.” That is, he knows who the real contenders are and aren’t. He also has to feel like there aren’t too many standouts or too many bums to render the race inscrutable.

“It’s not like you’re playing the lottery,” Toro says. “You’re going to look at the race and understand it or you’re not going to bet.”

For example, having failed to fatten his bankroll in the first 13 races of last year’s Breeders’ Cup, Toro was eager to play the Classic. But an hour before post time, he logged off his TVG account.

“Can’t figure it out,” he said. “I’m not going to bet it.”

That’s not discipline. That’s discretion.

“I never bet simply to have action. It can take 100 years to learn that lesson. I guess it only took me 45.”

No. 2, if he can’t narrow the likely winner down to one or two horses, it’s a no-play. Adding extra horses at the top of the ticket runs up the cost in a flash.

No. 3, he narrows the possible runners-up to no more than five. (See above.)

In a nutshell, Toro is playing an exacta wheel with two extra layers of risk – and reward – added on.

No. 4, if he feels like he’s nailed the exacta, now it’s about self-protection. Toro isn’t going to let his bank get busted by watching a decent horse clop up for third, so he resists the temptation to get cute.

He uses up to 10 horses in the show position.

Toro says this is where most bettors are too clever by half. They think that because they were smart enough to use only a handful of horses in first and second, they can use only a slightly bigger handful in third.

This makes El Toro snort with contempt.

“If you think you’re that smart, fine. You can be like me and leave your bleeping soul in a million casinos and a million race tracks where I should have walked away with ginormous tickets that I cheaped myself out of.”

No. 5, Toro has learned the hard way the immutable, unmerciful truth of superfecta betting:

Only good horses reliably finish first or second, and only decent ones usually run third. But any half-wit critter with a post and a pulse can finish fourth.

So Toro “buys the fourth line.” That’s right – he hits the ALL button.

“There’s no bleeping way I’m gonna get clodhoppered out of a superfecta.”

It’s expensive to hit the ALL button, and it’s scorned by most hardcore handicappers as an amateur’s play. But if that’s the case then Toro is the best amateur since Bobby Jones ruled Augusta National.

Getting clodhoppered out of the super happens all the time, especially in the Kentucky Derby. The list of recent fourth-place finishers is a Who’s Not Who of American horse racing:

Imawildandcrazyguy. Went the Day Well. Make Music for Me. Don’t Get Mad.

That last one is a horse’s name, not an imprecation. It better not be. Because the mere idea of not buying the fourth line makes the bull see red.

“I’ve done this a million times and I still do it on occasion: I’ll punch in a bet then look at my ticket and go back and try to shave $100 off.

“Sure enough, some piece of bleep pony will clop up to get fourth merely because his jockey saved ground and some decent horse had trouble. And then I’m like, ‘Well, there you go, you moron.’”

Don’t be a moron and don’t get mad. Play responsibly – but aggressively. Throw in with friends if you have to. It takes money to make money, you know.

It also takes the two things that toros have and steers don’t.

So don’t be cowed; bet like a bull.

Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.


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